Sports

James Burns: One-fin swim

James Burns, sports editor
James Burns, sports editor

ATWATER -- We've all been there before, cocksure and confident in our skills and ability, playfully daring a friend or foe.

"I bet I can beat you with one hand tied behind my back," you'd say, invariably raising the stakes.

Maybe your brush with bravado came during a driveway basketball game, with neighborhood bragging rights on the line.

Or maybe it was a pool game at the local hall.

Or nine on the sandlot.

No matter the arena or the stakes, we've all been there.

I'm better. I'll prove it. With one hand tied behind my back.

What if that one hand wasn't tied behind your back, but wrapped in layers of thick, heavy protective layering? Like a tiny Eskimo at the end of your wrist?

Oh yeah, that hand is also mangled, broken in one spot on the palm, sensitive to touch.

What then?

You keep playing.

Or in Adam Rice's case, you keep swimming, plowing through the water, though your injured fin begs you stop with every stroke.

To be clear, Rice isn't a braggart or a boast. The Atwater senior doesn't claim to be one of the best local fishes, though he really is. And most of all, he doesn't bait his opponents with a one-handed dare.

He just loves to swim.

And if that means, he's got to beat you with one hand, well...

So be it.

Rice broke a bone in his left hand, below the middle finger on his palm, during a routine morning practice two weeks ago.

The UC San Diego-commit was cruising along, working on his butterfly stroke, when he slapped hands with a teammate.

"Everyone I know calls it a freak accident -- and it was," Rice said. "Me and my friends slap hands all the time.

"It's actually pretty common for the butterfly. It usually hurts for a second, but this time..."

It broke.

The pain was instant.

His teammate's hand hit in between the middle and ring finger on Rice's hand. The momentum from his stroke carried his hand up his teammate's arm, wrenching and bending the bone until it snapped.

"I knew pretty quick that something was wrong," said Rice, the two-time defending Central California Conference champion in the 100-meter butterfly and a favorite to win the 200 individual medley before his injury. "I was hoping it wasn't a break ... a break would mess up my season."

That wasn't entirely true.

Because Rice is still swimming, still winning races -- just not the ones you're accustomed to seeing him swim.

Rice won the 100-meter backstroke last Friday after doctors gave him clearance to compete with a hard cast and protective layering.

With his hand wrapped in fiberglass, a plastic baggie, ace bandage and a sleek sleeve, Rice touched the wall in a minute flat.

Stroke, slap.

Stroke, slap.

It was a chore throughout, like towing a buoy for four laps.

"The hand is a paddle, like the ones you'd see in speed rowing," said Rice, who has to wear the cast for at least four weeks.

"The cast is big, so I can't streamline and move through the water. And I can't move my wrist.

"It's so hard to push through the water, because it floats. It's super hard on my shoulders."

For now, he's limited to freestyle sprints and the backstroke, and he is prohibited from diving off the blocks. His races begin from the wall, making him a true underdog.

"It's kind of embarrassing," said Rice, whose teammates have dubbed him the Muffin Man because his cast resembles an oven mitt. "They yell, 'Swimmers, up!' And I'm jumping into the water."

Wounded pride, however, beats the alternative: sitting on the pool deck, in street clothes, wasting away months of two-a-days.

"I've been training for a year. Four weeks would have messed me up for a long time," Rice said. "It would have taken me two, three, maybe four months to get back to where I was."

So he forges on.

One good hand.

One bad.

His oven mitt will be on display today when Atwater tangles with crosstown rival Buhach Colony.

"He's a fish. He's just a natural in the water. Even with a cast on, it looked he was swimming an event (backstroke) that he was the best at," said Atwater coach A.J. Abril, who was born with one hand.

"It's kind of funny, too," Abril added. "Adam isn't getting any sympathy from me. The other day he said, 'Coach, I'm having a hard time putting my goggles on with one hand.'

"I told him, 'Hey, if I could do it, so can you.' "

There is good news on the horizon. Rice will have the cast removed in two weeks, clearing him to resume his normal workload -- the 100 fly, 200 IM and 100 breaststroke.

"I've got two more weeks with this thing and then two weeks until CCC champs," Rice said.

He plans on defending his crown in the butterfly and maybe stealing a second title in the IM.

A catch like that requires two hands.

Not one.

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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